Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.
He does not come into judgement, but has passed from death to life.
St John 5:26
We are coming to the end of Trinity season. As we think of the union of our souls with God, even tasting and glimpsing the life of heaven on earth, it is most reasonable that there would be all of these commemorations of the faithful departed – yesterday All Saints, tonight All Souls, and in two Sundays from now Remembrance Sunday. As we’ve been led to think on the life of heaven, we’re being led to think on them.
The Reformers in the Anglican Tradition made no provision for All Souls’ Day in the Book of Common Prayer, emphasizing, with others in the Reformed tradition, that we are all saints by our baptism and faith and gifted with the Holy Spirit.
But the commemoration of the faithful departed, All Souls Day, a commemoration which began in the West in the 10th century [Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church], has begun to be observed again in certain Anglican churches even from the 19th century through the Oxford Movement. And it has come back into our Church in the Common Worship Prayer Book – on November 2 as the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed.
So why All Souls? And why is it a less celebratory service and more solemn, purple rather than the white of All Saints?
Our Gospel for All Saints (yesterday) was from the beatitudes – Jesus says, blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. But we needn’t look too far into ourselves to see that we are not quite there yet, nor were our loved ones quite there yet when they left this world.
We are given the greatest assurances in Scripture of the salvation of our loved ones through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus says assuring words in tonight’s Gospel [St John 5:19-26]:
As the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.
And to whom does he will to give eternal life?
Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgement, but has passed from death to life.
“When we speak of the ‘faithful departed’,” says Fr Crouse, “we mean those whose final choice, even if only in the final moment of all life’s choosings, is for the good; and we trust God’s mercy to make of that fragment something more – to purify the heart, that no fragment be lost, that the harvest be complete.”
We can be sure about this because of the scene at the crucifixion of Jesus. Beside Jesus there was a thief on a cross next to him, to whom Jesus promised, when the man asked for mercy, “Today you will be with me in Paradise! ”
We have sorrow that our loved ones are not here, we miss them, it is natural to feel grief – Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus, his friend – but we are not to be sad for them, but encouraged by the hope and promise Jesus gives us of the resurrection to eternal life.
There is a beautiful scene (Act I, Scene 5, 350-362) in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night about a woman, Olivia, who had been grieving for her brother for a year and had put her whole life on hold. There was a man who was a kind of “fool”, Feste, who had left her service to travel but now wanted to be received again into her household, but she wouldn’t receive him. So he makes a deal that if he can prove her to be the fool, that she should receive him back. She agrees and this is the dialogue:
Feste. Good madonna, give me leave to prove you a fool.
Olivia. Can you do it?
Feste. Dexterously, good madonna.
Olivia. Make your proof.
Feste. I must catechise you for it, madonna: good my mouse of virtue, answer me.
Olivia. Well, sir, for want of other idleness, I’ll bide your proof.
Feste. Good madonna, why mournest thou?
Olivia. Good fool, for my brother’s death.
Feste. I think his soul is in hell, madonna.
Olivia. I know his soul is in heaven, fool.
Feste. The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.
In the play Olivia accepts Feste’s proof and allows Feste’s return and also begins from that moment to put off the veil of mourning and to awaken again to the possibilities of life and of love for her in the here and now. We’re not fools to mourn the loss of loved ones, and God helps us in the healing of our grief over time, but we’re not to remain in sorrow, as people without hope, for those who died with faith in Jesus. [1 Thess 4:13-14]
But where are our loved ones who have departed this life? Is there an intermediate state for the faithful departed? Do we have any connection with them? Should we pray for them?
1. The intermediate state.
St Paul speaks about those who have died in hope, in his letter to the Thessalonians, describing them asleep in Jesus until the general resurrection. That, when Jesus appears again, those who are asleep will rise first and those who are still here shall be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air! [1 Thess 4:13-18]
What is meant by “asleep in Jesus” has been much pondered through the ages. Surely the thief on the cross needed some preparation having repented at the last moment – not to be justified but to be sanctified – even the grace of glorification, that we are promised, to make us ready to see God?
Some have suggested from these passages in the Bible that there is life here on earth, then a place of rest in Paradise, before a final entering into the fullness of heaven and the beatific vision of God.
Are people conscious in that state of rest? One commentator from a Protestant study bible on the Thessalonians passage says,
“Paul refers to Christians who have died as being ‘asleep’ which reinforces his main point that they will awake from the grave at the second coming. The metaphor is not intended to deny that the dead are in conscious fellowship with God in the intermediate state. Referring to death with the metaphor of sleep is simply suggested by the physical condition of those who sleep. It gains appropriateness from the fact that all who have died will rise at Christ’s return.” (ESV Study Bible note.)
St Peter speaks comforting words to us in his letter tonight [1 Peter 1:3-9] of what awaits the followers of Jesus. The promise to us and to our loved ones who died in faith and hope in Jesus is:
an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, … a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
We are not ready for the beatific vision now, but can we say that our loved ones are yet ready? It is a matter uncertain. Do Peter’s words, which apply to us, also apply to them?
Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Anglicans at the Reformation rejected, [in one of the 39 Articles (XXII)], “the Romish doctrine of purgatory”. But many have argued that it was simply a debased teaching about purgatory that they rejected, not a rejection of the idea of purgatory altogether. And many Anglican theologians have reflected and written their thoughts on purgatory.
There is an intermediate state of rest: is it a state of perfecting? Surely there is something happening, so that we might be presented in the Church adorned for her Bride “without spot or wrinkle” [Ephesians 5:27; Revelation 22]. If it is a time of purifying, of purging, it will be something most desirable for those who love God, because they will be drawing closer to Him.
3. Should we pray for their perfecting as we pray for one another in this life?
Many Anglicans have argued in favour of praying for the dead based on the universal use of such prayers in the early Church liturgies and in the major Christian traditions in both the East and West ever since, and also because of the arguments in favour of such prayers by the Church Fathers, including St Augustine (e.g. De Civ. Dei, 21.26; Enchiridion, 68f.) and St Gregory the Great (Dialogues 4.57). [ODCC] And many Anglicans do.
One preacher has summed it up like this (Dr Robert Crouse, Sermon for All Souls’):
We pray for the departed, as we pray for one another here and now. We do not cease to be our brothers’ (and sisters’) keepers when we commend them to God’s keeping, and we plead Christ’s sacrifice for them and for ourselves. The prayer is essentially the same: that God, who works in them and us, will save and nurture and bring to fruition our little fragments of spiritual life, that we may come at last to the peace of the saints, the purity of heart which wills one thing.
And that one thing is to love God and our neighbour, in God, and so be ready to behold His glory and to enjoy beatitude in perfect fellowship with the whole host of heaven.
Let us prepare ourselves now through repentance and faith, purifying ourselves by the Body and Blood of Christ, that we might draw closer to God and to our faithful departed loved ones even tonight.